Saturday, September 29, 2012

Further Reflections on Action Research

This is an executive summary/argument for using Action Research at a college.

As Our institution moves from a two-year college to a full-service baccalaureate institution, faculty will be increasingly asked to consider their role in the creation of knowledge for their respective disciplines and instruction in that discipline.  As the Faculty Fellow for Publication and Communication, I approach the role as one of facilitating not just faculty development in instructional methods for the classroom, but also in professional development in the personal, service, and research aspects of their work.

Concurrently, I am beginning my journey as a doctoral student in the Adult Education and Organizational Leadership at the University of Georgia.  The goal of the faculty in this program is to lead us to be scholar/practitioners using, among others, the action research methodology.

In this memo, I would like to outline the characteristics of and processes used in action research and the benefits of this methodology to our college.

Action Research Defined

Action research is a rigorous social sciences methodology that has been in use in various forms since the 1940s.  Its earliest uses were in studying group dynamics and relationships.  Kurt Lewin, one action research’s originators, along with his colleagues realized that including the reflections of their research subjects in their data and in planning research processes provided a richer array of evidence.

Today, action research exists in many forms.  Some are focused on improving social conditions and ensuring more socially just conditions; Paolo Freire’s work in South America and much action research in Scandinavia are examples.  Other versions of action research, while embracing a democratic view of human relations and power, are more focused on solving problems or creating improved conditions and operations in businesses, schools, colleges, and health care and social service-providing organizations.

However, all action research involves a core of characteristics or traits.  A composite definition would be “a research approach combining quantitative, ethnographic, and qualitative methodologies which focuses on studying and solving real problems in social systems, that collects data and plans interventions, that views those affected by the research and problem-solving as research partners, that values democracy and dialogue, that views knowledge as including knowledge that is socially and personally constructed, and that requires consecutive cycles of planning, reflection, action (intervention), and assessment, and replanning.”

Action research differs from purely quantitative research by requiring reflection and dialogue, and it differs from purely qualitative methods by allowing, even requiring, that the interviewees or survey takers be part of the planning process and fully aware of their agency in the process.  However, action research usually incorporates quantitative and qualitative methods at various points in its repeated cycles.  Further, the researcher is expected to be honest with herself about biases and submit those to the group engaging in the research or those reading the published findings.

Action research is also highly reliant on grounded theory for its research and the manner of its intervention.  It is this action or intervention that also distinguishes action research.  In a sense action research is experimental, but the hypothesis testing is being done to address an existing problem or deficiency which the organizational leader and/or employees have agreed to address or have invited the researcher to address.

Action research adds to the knowledge base by testing and providing evidence for theories in the respective discipline, or by providing evidence that modifies the theory.  These disciplines include business development and growth, education, communication, social psychology, and management, among others.  Action research also adds to the knowledge base of research methods and epistemology.

Traits of Action Research

Action research, regardless of the location or the contest in which it is conducted, and regardless of the problem that is being addressed, shares these characteristics:
  • Rigorous.  The cyclical nature, the requirement of reflection and reflexivity, and the theoretical bases and prior research demand a detailed, careful, rigorous process.
  • Democratic.  Those who are affected by the research and the action have a voice in the design, data collection, and “meaning-making” of the conclusions.
  • Open.  Participants (not “subjects”) are apprised of the goals and strategies of the study and often partners in choices of such methods.  Ideally, action research has no secrets. 
  • Theory-based. 
  • Reflective at three levels.  The researcher reflects on the problem, the research process, and the theory behind the intervention.  The participants also reflect individually and corporately, for example, as part of the initial data collection and post-action phases.
  • Cyclical.  After one cycle of diagnosis, planning, action, and assessment/evaluation, another is begun based on what was learned in the first cycle.  An action research study may include three or four cycles.
  • Resulting in publishable conclusions.  There are many academic journals devoted to action research.
  • Flexible, or as Herr and Anderson (2005) term it, “emergent.”  Since each phase of the cycles, and each succeeding cycle, depends on what is learned previously in the action research process, the researcher and participants respond to the found and constructed knowledge and may find themselves going in unplanned directions.
  • Autobiographical.  The researcher, especially, is transparent about his or her life experience, standpoints, and thought processes in the research.
  • Constructivist.  Knowledge is seen, at least partially, as socially and individually constructed through experience and reflection on experience
  • Practical.  The goal of action research is to solve a problem and to learn from the process.

Analogies to Action Research

When I was introduced to the action research process, my first response was, “This is very much like how the scholarship of teaching and learning (SoTL) is done.”  SoTL is rooted in Ernest Boyer’s work Scholarship Reconsidered (1990), in which he argues that rigorous research about teaching in a discipline should be considered on par with research in the discipline.  SoTL is a vital part of faculty development.  Faculty members engage in SoTL informally every day, by trying new techniques in the classroom.  The action research and SoTL models allow them to formalize the use of new pedagogies.  

My second response was “This is what we did with the QEP.”  In fact, I have often wondered why SACS does not present the QEP as action research.  It might have helped their communication of the goals of a QEP and located it in a more useful place for colleges. 

Benefits of Action Research to Our institution

DSC will benefit from action research in the sense that specific and systemic problems can be addressed in formal, internally driven, yet inclusive, broad-based, dialogic ways.  Action research will facilitate reflection and lead to the possibility of faculty presentations and publications.  Action research works well in higher education and other fields which we teach here.

As a teaching institution, we expect and value quality instruction.  That mission lessens the opportunity for faculty to do in-depth, traditional research.  The benefits and processes of action research—problem-solving, participatory, reflection-oriented, cyclical-- are appropriate for us.

I would like to suggest two plans.  First, I will model action research as a Faculty Fellow as part of my doctoral research, which will involve some aspect of improving the assessment and evaluation of professional development on campus.  Second, I would like to present workshops in action research methods specifically related to instruction and service.  The best approach is to have a learning community of faculty who apply and commit to learning about action research and engaging in it with a goal of a publication or presentation. 

The question might arise, “What would our institution’s commitment to Action Research entail?”  Because it is a social sciences methodology, that commitment would largely be in terms of time spent by the researchers and participants.  The learning community approach would require one-course release time for those who qualify for participation.   Resources beyond that would involve paper and copying. 

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